Logic, the CM Way

Dear Reader,

Logic. The classical homeschoolers do a lot of it. Those Critical Thinking workbooks are so attractive. Do you ever wonder if you should be doing logic? And if so, how? What would Charlotte Mason say?

In her sixth books, Towards a Philosophy of Education, Charlotte does tell us what she thinks of logic education and how to go about it. The subject is treated, albeit in an indirect way, in the chapter on the Way of Reason. The first and most important point, I think, is that we do not teach children to have or use reason. Children, you will remember from her first principle, are “born persons.” We do not need to develop their faculties; they come fully equipped. So when we teach logic, we are not teaching them to think. Rather, we are teaching them how to rightly use this God-given ability.

But what does it mean to teach or study logic? Sometimes when other homeschoolers speak of teaching logic, they mean something very concrete and mathematical — these are those cute little puzzle books for ages 6+ that give you clues and ask you to rearrange colored circles to fit the information given. They are the sorts of logic puzzles one might find alongside crosswords in a Dell puzzle book. They are fun, but they are what Charlotte would call mathematical reasoning. They can be good but the skills they seek to build will not transfer over into real reasoning skills.

Our classical friends often add another component –I’ll call this kind logic and rhetoric. They may study ancient Greeks. They may throw around words like fallacy and talk about correct arguments. Quite likely their children are in debating clubs.  I suspect that what one really learns from such debates is one of Charlotte’s most basic points: having a really great argument doesn’t make you right.

When she discusses they way of reason, Charlotte’s main point is that we all use reason to back up what we already think. This is very evident in those debating contests which pit children against one another. They are assigned topics and sides; no one need argue what he or she actually thinks. A child may win by out-arguing an opponent and still not believe a word of what  he himself says. The framing of arguments is the skill. I do think there can be some value in this; the children no doubt learn how to see the flaws in another’s argument, but it does not get to the heart of the issue.

If, as Charlotte says, we all use reason to back up what we already think, then we must have two goals — one is to teach our children to see the flaws in reasoning, both their own and that of others, but the other, and the more important, is to get them to accept good ideas and not bad from the start.

There is no good pre-packaged curriculum to fulfill either of these goals. With regard to the former, showing them how to see the flaws in an argument, Charlotte suggests just gently, one in a while, showing them the holes in their own reasoning. Ask them how they got to a conclusion or why they decided to do one thing over another. She mentions particularly having them examine at their own thoughts but we may also turn this gaze on the arguments of others, especially those we find in our books. Why do you think this character did this? How did he make this decision? What do you think he will choose and why? What would you choose to do in this situation? These questions should not be overused but can occasionally gently guide a child to  think more deeply about what is behind their own actions and those of others. Note that a major component is to have the child think about their own actions and opinions. Critiquing others is much easier for all of us. One who can analyze his own thoughts will have no problem turning the light on the arguments of others. But critiquing another does not so reliably lead to self-analysis.

The second component, and perhaps the more important, is to ensure that they have good ideas on which to build their arguments. This is done slowly over time and cannot be forced. It is the result of  good intellectual diet, of providing living books with good ideas, of introducing children to people, living and dead, from whom we would have them learn. It cannot be summed up in a curriculum or covered in a year. It is the work of a lifetime (theirs, not yours).

So, CM mamas, if you are panicking because you do not have a big think logic section on your homeschool shelf, do not fear. Think about what we really need to teach our kids and how they will learn it. Guide them in paths of right thinking gently. Workbooks are not going to help here.


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